Researcher by day, dancer by night: Kid Nimbus balances dual passions

In the clinic and on stage, UChicago’s Derrick Judkins seeks to connect and inspire

Editor’s note: This story is part of ‘Meet a UChicagoan,’ a regular series focusing on the people who make UChicago a distinct intellectual community. Read about the others here.

To his coworkers, he’s Derrick: a laid-back yet meticulous colleague who is always eager to teach others as a University of Chicago clinical research coordinator.

But to those in the world of hip-hop dance, he’s “Kid Nimbus”: the “people’s champion” from Joliet, Illinois, who has turned himself from a gawky preteen into a successful street dancer known for his playful, expressive style and innovative movements.

Derrick Judkins is just trying to balance all his passions—namely, a career in medicine and one in dance.

“I didn’t think I would ever be in this position, looking back,” Judkins said, referring to his obvious lack of rhythm prior to the seventh grade. “My parents still talk about it—they used to call me up to dance at family gatherings, and they would just laugh, because it was hilarious.”

But as he neared high school, something clicked: “I was able to finally interpret the music I was hearing, enough for someone to say, ‘Wow, he’s really good!’”

Judkins is used to surprising people.

In 2018, Kid Nimbus got his first big break soon after earning his undergraduate degree in biology at Northern Illinois University. At NIU, he had dabbled in dance events, and even had an original choreography piece make it to the American College Dance Festival. But Judkins didn’t seriously consider his future as a performer until he made it to the “dance battle” finals at the World of Dance Chicago All Styles Competition, where he won the final votes of the judges with his unique, free-form style.

That win caused him to reevaluate what he wanted to do in his career—including a transition from medical school goals to instead focus on research, where he knew he could grow professionally while also developing his craft on the dance floor.

“That was the time for me to reconsider what I’m actually capable of, and what I should do with this talent,” he said.

Making an impact

Now at UChicago, he spends his weekdays explaining clinical trials to patients, collecting samples, and setting up various projects for the South Side community as part of the Pediatric Clinical Trials Office (PCTO). When patients first meet him in person during these processes, they’re often happy to see someone who looks like them.

“When they see me, they’re like ‘Oh! I didn’t expect him to have 4C hair texture,’” Judkins said. “It’s really cool to be a young, Black male—something you don’t see that often in this field—it’s refreshing. Being able to be representative and having that knowledge to be able to translate into my community, I think that’s huge.”

Prior to his current role in the Biological Sciences Division’s PCTO, Judkins worked as a lead research assistant for UChicago’s Institute of Population and Precision Health (IPPH). There, he led a mobile research unit and helped conduct community events to educate potential participants for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine trials.

“We did a lot of vaccine outreach on how to communicate with different people, particularly the African American community,” Judkins recalled. “It came down to communicating and explaining the research process, things like peer reviews—things that aren’t really explained when you watch the news.”

The details are where Judkins thrives.

“Derrick is very informative,” said Sandra Jones, a former co-worker who now works as a clinical researcher in UChicago’s Section of Gastroenterology. “He has his teaching moments, and if he needs to explain something, he will go to the whiteboard, and he will draw it out—and he’s very talented at that, too. He’ll explain it detail by detail until you get it.”

Judkins even encouraged Jones to go back to school to get her bachelor’s degree in health care administration. She did, last fall, and now she’s set to start her master’s in public health this month.

Judkins sees parallels between science and dance. “There is a lot of trial and error in both, and in dance, there’s actually a lot of research that needs to be done,” he said. “But what it comes down to is how you are able to translate what you want other people to understand.”

When he’s not attending dance-related competitions, Judkins is constantly trying to learn—attending studio sessions, watching old dance routines online, and connecting with other dancers on social media.

To truly make an impact on his audiences, Judkins said it’s most important to be able to translate his movements to others, even if they’re not as immersed in the same world. He does something similar when discussing clinical trials with patients.

Judkins recalled, for example, explaining the actual definition of cancer to a potential trial patient and cancer survivor: “Even though she had cancer, she never knew that cancer was an uncontrolled growth. I didn’t use a lot of jargon; I just broke it down so she could understand it.

“That’s the biggest thing—and me having that understanding from science—is that everyone has their own reference point.”

Becoming the ‘people’s champion’

Despite his 2018 win at World of Dance, doubts still lingered about Judkins’ abilities as a dancer—both among others in the dance community, and within his self-perception. That’s what made his victory at October’s Red Bull Dance Your Style regional competition so crucial: Advancing to the national final against 15 other dancers, he said, gave him a new boost in confidence.

“I had been living in a shell in terms of my art, like I still wasn’t good enough,” said Judkins, who didn’t start dancing competitively until college. “I’m an artist, and I’m sensitive about my [art]. When I won [the regional title], people couldn’t say anything.

“I brought that trophy home, and I can’t keep doubting myself: ‘This guy, he’s a force.’”

It also gave a huge win to the “people’s champion”—a nickname he acquired for his modest upbringing: Judkins spent his early years in a military family moving from Ohio to Germany and back to the U.S., eventually settling in the Chicago suburbs. And unlike most of his competition, he didn’t grow up in a city known for its dance scene, and doesn’t yet have a verified blue check on his Instagram.

But what exactly, is his dance style? To someone who doesn’t have a background in street dance, Judkins describes it as “hip-hop freestyle.” But he also incorporates many other forms and techniques into a free-flow dance that is all his own—a hybrid of sorts that stands apart from the styles of some of his fellow dancers, including krumping, popping, Chicago footwork and Chicago house.

“Every movement has its purpose; it has its origin,” he said. “I like to take elements from traditional hip-hop freestyle, with some breaking elements, some popping elements, and some animation elements, and put them into what suits me and the way that my body moves.”

He pointed to moves he performed to The Jackson 5’s “ABC” at the Dance Your Style national event in Washington, D.C., last October. “I like to grab other elements, but I make sure to pay homage to where I learned how to dance. … Those movements were inspired from 1920s swing,” he said.

Kid Nimbus isn’t done yet. While he didn’t take home the title in D.C., he was proud of his semifinals performance against a competitor named Angyil, a “popper” who went on to win the title.

In early January, he won a category title at the Thesis Dance Event in Tampa, Florida. When he’s not traveling for competitions, Judkins leads studio sessions, attends local dance events, and works with his dance crew, KangzKastle.

All of that of course, is in addition to his day job, where he works to further his knowledge in different types of medications for various diseases. Currently, he’s part of PCTO’s work on a pharmaceutical trial for patients with erosive esophagitis as well as coordinating studies for children with celiac disease. His co-workers have noticed his ability to excel in both realms.

“It amazes me how he’s doing it, because he puts his full attention on work, and then his full attention into his dancing career, and he does it all well, and so effortlessly,” Jones said. “He’s just so humble, and it’s good to see someone his age being so motivated and focused on doing what he loves, while enjoying life.”

In the future, Judkins said his goal is to become a physician’s assistant. He hopes that PA school, as opposed to his original plan for medical school, will allow him to continue to pursue both passions. 

“I don’t want to live my life doing just one thing,” Judkins said. “I know how short life is, and I know at the end of the day, there’s going to be a time where I’m going to say, ‘I wish I had done that.’ It’s just not going to be right now.”